The following is an abbreviated and edited version of Jonny Burgess’ essay for the Union MTh Spiritual Formation module.
Christian leader, how is your “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet.1:8)? Joy eludes us, as heads, hearts and schedules fill up with needs, tasks, and teachings. Missiologist Wilmer Villarcota observed:
“I find it intriguing how significant the experience of joy in the psalmist and the Apostle Paul is in contrast to how missional endeavors have encrusted themselves in the monotony of just ‘doing the task’ without a renewing sense of joy”.
Likewise, with pastoral ministry. So here are five streams of joy for us to drink from and minister from:
- Find joy in creation
Even in the most helpful literature that encourages self-care and soul-care, there is a remarkable absence of encouragement to enjoy God’s simple gifts in creation: food, drink, fresh air, laughter. Perhaps this silence betrays a lack of confidence in leisure as a gift of God to be stewarded for his glory. We may be uncomfortably close to C. S. Lewis’ miserly Screwtape, who struggled to comprehend the delight of laughter amongst friends: “Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven”.
The Puritans made a crucial distinction: God’s creation is not an end in itself; rather we express devotion to God, who gives all good things, through our enjoyment of his gifts.
For the Christian leader, this means savouring the freedom to find joy in the goodness of a walk with the dog, a favourite meal, a glass of something refreshing, a pleasant item of clothing, or a revitalising bath. Such refreshment is vital amidst the stresses and strains of ministry, for one’s own sake, and for the effect on others. As Spurgeon put it, “there will be more souls led to heaven by a man who wears heaven on his face than by one who bears Tartarus in his looks” (Lectures to My Students).
- Find joy in friendships
Lewis bemoaned the fact that “very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value [to Affection or Eros] or even a love at all.” Unlike the Ancients, says Lewis, to whom “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves”, to modern minds, friendship, devastatingly, “is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chinks of one’s time” (The Four Loves).
It is a notoriously thorny question how church leaders can enjoy quality friendships without producing favourites, or being thought of as having favourites in a church family. Anecdotally, many pastors in theological education are warned not to pursue friendships in their congregations. But a way must surely be found. Negatively, there are so many challenges from the world, the flesh and the devil, that ministers would be fools not to pursue and prioritise friendships that bring courage, accountability, hope, edification and joy, and that regularly. And positively, Augustine beautifully described a friendship as “sweeter to me than all the joys of life” (Confessions). There is great blessing available here for Christian leaders as they labour in the Lord’s harvest field.
- Find joy in communion
John Owen explained that our experiential communion with God is “bottomed upon” the foundation of our objective union with God through faith in Christ. From that foundation, we can delight in a “mutual communication in giving and receiving… between God and the saints while they walk together in a covenant of peace” (Communion with God).
Christian leaders must ask, what does that communion and communication look like for me? Has it become formulaic? How genuinely does it generate joy in the Lord?
J. I. Packer warns alarmingly that without the assurance and joy of walking with God in the Spirit of Sonship: “we shall slip back into formalism, a version of the religion of aspiration and perspiration that lacks both inspiration and transformation, a religion of mechanical observances, low expectations, deep ruts of routine, and grooves that quickly turn into graves.”
George Mueller’s recommendation is excellent:
The most important point to be attended to is this: above all things see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord. Other things may press upon you, the Lord’s work may even have urgent claims upon your attention, but I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself! Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.
- Find joy in preaching
Preaching must be both aimed at joy and driven by joy.
God’s intended purpose for preaching and the consistent goal of Paul’s ministry is joy, even in suffering (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:5-6; Rom. 15:13; Phil. 1:25-26). John Piper encourages us: “God loves to help the preacher who is desperate to make the word plain for the holy happiness of his people.”
If preachers “work… for… joy” (2 Cor 1:24), how ironic it would be not to be rejoicing in the Lord in that task! We preach “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). “Explanation without exultation is not preaching” (Piper). Joyless preaching is not faithful preaching.
There is of course joy in a job well done – the joy of the “hardworking farmer… the first to receive a share of the crops” (2 Tim 2:6). But Jonathan Edwards would highlight a danger in locating joy in blessed experiences God gives, even a fantastic sermon well delivered and gladly received. Joy is most securely and rightly located in the God being preached.
And that true joy has, as Jonathan Edwards calls it, a “holy power.” Joy begets joy, and joyful preaching begets joyful believing. Lewis Allen challenges us:
“if we honestly believe that people will be won for Christ through our dutiful, even faithful and conscientious – but actually joyless – preaching, then we deceive ourselves… Our ever-blessed, ever-joyful God wants to be proclaimed by those who are brimful of the joy his grace in Christ brings” (The Preacher’s Catechism).
- Find joy in suffering
The NT reveals strikingly that the usual context in which joy is spoken of is suffering, for all believers but particularly for ministers of the gospel. The apostles rejoice amidst imprisonment and interrogation (Acts 5:41), persecution and exile (Acts 13:50-52). Genuine ministry is promoting joy through painful sorrow (2 Cor 7:9), joyfully embracing weakness for the sake of others (2 Cor 13:9). The authentic minister can say, “I rejoice in what I am suffering for you” (Col 1:24).
Jeremiah Burroughs was a man familiar with suffering. He reflected at length on the call to learn contentment, which he defined as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition” (Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment). This requires a lifetime of patient, faith-filled, God-focussed learning (Phil. 4:11).
Supremely, for Burroughs, God’s trustworthiness is demonstrated at the Cross. It is there that we see most clearly how God is at work for joy even in the most awful situations:
“God when he will bring life, brings it out of death, he brings joy out of sorrow, and he brings prosperity out of adversity, yes and many times brings grace out of sin, that is, makes use of sin to work furtherance of grace. It is the way of God to bring good out of evil, not only to overcome the evil, but to make the evil work toward the good.”
So we rejoice, but alongside “all kinds of trials” (1 Pet 1:7). This careful balance is essential for the Christian leader, seeking to hold out a genuine offer of joy in the Lord, whilst experiencing it himself; leading sufferers and sinners as a sufferer and sinner; “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10). As we drink from these streams, we anticipate the Day when they will turn into a flood of joy unceasing.
Jonny Burgess is Assistant Pastor at Christ Church Balham. He would happily share with you the full essay with many more gems from those who have gone before. To find out more about the Union MTh see the course page.